This fall, a major work by Jack Tworkov will be auctioned at Sotheby’s New York. Painted in 1957-58, Queen II, is a signature example of Tworkov’s Abstract Expressionist period. To mark the appearance of such work of this rarity, Jason Andrew, Manager/Curator of the Estate of Jack Tworkov offers a brief history of the painting and its relationship to its time and place.
Note: Many of the links in this blog link to the Tworkov Catalogue Raisonne Project and readers will need to login with an email address to view the links properly.
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Nearing the end of the 1950s, Jack Tworkov embarked on an important series of paintings that would later become signature examples of the artist’s Abstract Expressionist period. Uniquely physical and exhibiting Tworkov’s distinct flame-like brush strokes, the three canvases would become the Queen Series. Queen II from this series is featured a September 24th sale at Sotheby’s.
The series was completed at a time when Tworkov and his colleagues were at last riding on a wave of enthusiasm for and appreciation of their distinctive gestural painting. It was in history witness New York City surpass Paris as the center of the western art world.
In 1958, just a year after Tworkov completed his Queen Series, the International Program of the Museum of Modern Art began circulating The New American Painting as shown in Eight European Countries, a mammoth exhibition that toured much of Eastern Europe. The exhibition organized by the legendary curator Dorothy Miller, included five works by Jack Tworkov and put Abstract Expressionism on the international scene. Featuring works by Jackson Pollock—the Demi-God of American action painting—and other members of the famed New York School, the exhibition not only advanced American art, but also American politics and culture at Mid-Century. The New York Times critic John Canaday noted by 1959, “Abstract Expressionism was at the zenith of its popularity.”(1)
It should be noted that Tworkov rarely planned to work within a series. His hope, as he wrote in 1957, was to “confront the picture without a ready technique or a prepared attitude… to paint no Tworkovs.”(2) In fact the first painting in the series was simply titled Queen and remains unnumbered still today.
Tworkov would acknowledge nearly a year later that to “approach the canvas without any pre-conceptions is in a sense impossible. Many painters approach their canvas without any preliminary drawing, or any preliminary image. Yet they each end up with a characteristic work that cannot be mistaken for anyone else’s, because they are,” Tworkov continues, “already committed to certain forms, to certain colors, materials, and to certain manners of manipulation. Klines always come out Klines, and Pollocks always come out Pollocks.”(3)
When one views a series from Tworkov’s extensive body of works, it is important to note that the artist was involved in balancing both conscious and unconscious impulses when making a picture.
Queen, was first exhibited in a solo show the Stable Gallery in April 1957 (the artist’s third solo show at the gallery and fourteens of this career). The work hung alongside an earlier series of painting titled Duo I and Duo II, both painted in 1956. Duo I was purchased by the Whitney Museum of American Art in February 1958. Duo II would also join the Whitney collection as a gift from the artist in 1968.
The Duo Series and Queen Series share several overall compositional elements. First, and more apparent in the Duo Series, one can see Tworkov dividing the canvas into three distinct sections: bottom, middle, top. Second, we can gather through drawings the artist made during this period that buried beneath the layers of brushed color are figurative elements which the artist uses as a start point for the life of the composition. In the Queen Series the figure is all but obliterated—seemingly standing in a pillar of flaming color.
In regards to Tworkov’s subject for his paintings the artist described his relationship in a short undated journal entry:
Where memory played a role in my painting I was aware that confession was the pivot of my subject.
Queen II and Queen III were completed in 1958 and were first exhibited at the Stable Gallery in April 1959. Reviewing the exhibition for Arts Magazine, Martica Swain exclaims:
Tworkov’s paintings give memorable moments of sheer delight. His color, now blazing, now gently softened, now sounding in resonant combinations, is the source of both form and light, holding within its brilliant transparencies darker gradations which convey limitless depth, at the same time allowing the white light of the canvas to shimmer through to the surface… slashing oranges cut across the pink and blue of partially squared area […] with the more complex imagery of Queen II and III, in which figures with ritual connotations are implied in rich color schemes of red, blue, green and ocher with white. A large amount of calculated precision and a substantial backlog of knowledge and experience enter into the making of these paintings into the sense of structure implicit in the washed-on color areas and the incredible lucidity of the actual colors. The poetic element here is as understated as the painting process, stirring the imagination with insinuated forms and situations, but giving precedence to visual pleasure.(5)
Art News applauded Tworkov’s draftsmanship and noted that many members of Tworkov’s generation and background, Willem de Kooning for example, “find their drawing skills somehow to be an artistic encumbrance or problematical. To lay the ghost of the figure they try to dispense with draftsmanship. Even so, Woman [referring to de Kooning’s Woman Series] keeps haunting their canvases. Since almost every manner of plastic homicide has been attempted to do away with her, Tworkov has handed her a scepter and crowned her Queen. Two versions of her majesty appear in his show, Queen II and Queen III.”(6)
Tworkov Queen Series most certainly celebrates the figure. Queen II in particular features the central image vividly brushed with a veracious verticality that seems to allow our heroine to heroically battle on with valor, and courage while offering a daring narrative to the saga of Abstract Expressionism.
“Where art is a clamor and rife with ostentation and ribaldry, and every other painter is grasping for the brass ring,” wrote Art News, “Tworkov’s meditative art shows that he has climbed off the merry-go-round and doesn’t believe in the free ride.”(7)
Queen II was sold by Leo Castelli in early 1960s and was later included in Tworkov’s retrospective exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1964.
For more information on the works discussed herein including complete provenance, exhibition, and publication please visit the Jack Tworkov Catalogue Raisonne Project.
(1) John Canaday, The New York Times, August 8, 1976.
(2) Jack Tworkov, Artist Statement, Stable Gallery, April 1957.
(3) Jack Tworkov, Artist Statement, It Is, No. 1 (Spring 1958).
(4) Mira Schor, ed. The Extreme of the Middle: Writings of Jack Tworkov. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009, p. 85.
(5) Martica Swain, “In the Galleries: Tworkov at Stable Gallery,” Arts Magazine 33 (April 1959), p. 54.
(6) Hubert Crehan. “Reviews and Previews: Jack Tworkov at Stable Gallery,” Art News 58 (April 1959), p. 11.